Editorial: Falkirk No More?

If the rising water isn’t stopped, the Falkirk Kelpies will end up standing in their supernatural habitat. Some monuments corrode and some myths die, but others come into their own. Those 30-metre icons of the central belt rearing over the River Carron invoke the horses that heaved coalships along canals, as tankers now haul oil to and from Grangemouth refinery. But unlike horses, kelpies are dangerous. They tempt travellers from their journeys to their death, summoning up floods and carrying their victims deep into the water to drown and devour them.

kelpies in flood
The Falkirk Kelpies in their native habitat

For the socialist novelist Naomi Mitchison, these water-dwelling demons symbolised an old Scotland that might be appealing from the standpoint of the present, and whose allure might lead us to forget the evils it contained. As socialists we have a tendency to be enchanted by earlier eras of capitalism, because it is so difficult to live under the system that governs our social relations today. We should be wary of the idea that freedom can be summoned from the past. On the other hand, there is plenty that ideas and images of past systems can teach us about ourselves and our socialist journeys today.

Three contributers to this issue draw on our history to consider ways in which new senses of the self and of society issues from changing material life in the previous century. Amber Ward’s essay deals with the problems of the recurring narrative that makes twentieth-century miners into Scotland’s central working class subject. According to this story, Thatcherism and the closure of the mines were catastrophic to working class identity. Ward tells a different story, showing how elements of self-autonomy – long rejected by the Left as a threat – helped to liberate communities, inspired a nationalist revival, and must now be harnessed by our movement whether it likes it or not. Reaching back some further generations, Charlie Lynch takes us to inter-war Scotland when male sex workers in the post-Victorian underworld were targeted in a ‘war on homosexuality’ launched by obsessively homophobic policeman, shaping some of the stigmas that became a staple of Scottish sexual attitudes. Ronan Scott traces the twists in society’s treatment of neurodiversity and mental illness through the course of the twentieth century, raising doubts whether the Left today has learned any lessons from radicals who took bolder journeys in quest of collective mental liberation. 

The past we inherit, the future we build. Just as carbon-focused changes in industry during the 70s and 80s had seismic consequences for society, so too the economic transitions that the changing climate brings about will reshape the infrastructure of the country and the balance of power between the private sector and the people. This is perhaps most obvious in the growing investment in flood defences. On the last day of January, the Scottish Government launched a consultation for its national adaptation plan (2024 to 2029), declaring that ‘private investment in adaptation action’ will be central to its plans. The Government will lever in private finance to pay for public safety. But capital never invests without a plan to siphon out more than it puts in: the heavier the rainfall, the higher the windfall for landowners and private investors. As ever-greater sums pour into local climate-change mitigation, Elliot Hurst describes the different ways that communities might be protected, contrasting the most likely, which safeguards private ownership, to the most radical, which reassert the commons. 

The link between carbon and the commons is also a factor in the struggle against private social landlords like the Wheatley Group, whose plans to demolish the Wyndford high-rises carry high environmental costs alongside the consequences of social cleansing and community disintegration described in this issue by Stephanie Martin, Sean O’Neill, and Malcolm Fraser. And Ellie Harrison explains how the clutch that private investors have in Strathclyde’s transport system is one reason our largest city region lags behind much of England in laying the infrastructure for carbon-neutral cities. 

Our changing climate and its consequences will give rise to new challenges, battles between capital and communities, new ways of living, and new senses of the self that may be individual or collective. The Left must move across all this terrain if it is to find a path beyond the parliamentary impasse it seems to be facing in 2024. This organ is keen to confront head-on the fear that Gregor Gall recently expressed in The Herald that Scotland’s Left is becoming an ‘irrelevance’. In his essay Finn Smyth certainly sees a parliamentary Left that has slipped towards the centre, with little to show after years of devolution. Many people’s main memory of those post-devolution years will be the war against Iraq, which was a time when, as Henry McCubban wrote in a 2009 issue, billions were spent on weapons, and the costs were borne by the taxes drawn from workers’ labour. It seems that whoever wins this year’s election, they will keep sending bullets to Israel. When we are confronted on the electoral road by the alluring memories of the last Labour government, we must not forget to see the evil in its eyes.If you judge the Scottish Left by party polling, policy lists, and parliamentary politics, then there is little to be glad about this election year. But look beyond this frame, and you can see the spirit of Left culture all around, not least in the way Scots are demonstrating a sustained solidarity with the people of Palestine. On this front, the Left has been humbling in its energy and sense of purpose. The daily and weekly struggle is symbolised beautifully by the calendar for Palestine made and described in this issue by Shona Macnaugton and Katherine Mackinnon, while filmmaker Cairsti Russell, whose Freedom to Run is now screening across Scotland, writes about how shared hobbies, sports, and friendships are a vessel for our unyielding resistance to occupation. Our next steps for Palestine, as Henry Maitles writes, must be rooted in an understanding of the historical development of Zionism and its relationship to the Left. For in understanding our past we find ourselves and one another leading kelpies by the bridle along that certain path towards a better world.